GSM technology to help tame marauding elephants

Farmers around Mount Kenya Forest are using mobile technology to get help when they sense elephants might be about to maraud.

For the farmers living around Mount Kenya Forest, every day is a struggle, wondering whether the 5,000 elephants from the forest will "visit" and leave a trail of destruction and even death.

But the days of living in fear may be over, thanks to new technology that will enhance communication between local communities and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). In the past, when rogue elephants broke from the forest, they destroyed farm land and the only thing farmers could do was scream and report the marauding elephants to KWS a day or two after.

Push to Talk on Cellular, or PoC, brings together mobile service provider Safaricom, Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) Development Fund, Wireless Zeta Telecomunicaciones (Wireless ZT), Nokia, the Nokia Siemens Networks and local conservation organizations. In South Africa, the technology helped improve communication between communities and park authorities.

The technology combines the functionality of a walkie-talkie and a mobile phone, so farmers can communicate directly with the KWS if they sense any danger of the elephants coming. Laikipia district, which neighbors the forest, is known as one of the worst areas for elephant-human conflict. The second largest elephant population in Kenya, at 5,000, is located there. Human-population growth and expanded settlements infringe on elephant habitat.

When the farmers hear the whistling sound of the elephants coming, they have no way of alerting other farmers or the KWS. The farmers beat metal tins to make a sound similar to gunshots, which scares the elephants.

The handset will allow two-way communication between group members and KWS. PoC can also be used with voice and data services on one handset, with users able to make phone calls, send text messages and access two-way and group communication.

PoC can also be used alongside voice and data services on a single handset. Users can make standard phone calls and send text messages while accessing two-way communication and group talk. Network resources are used only when members are communicating, so the cost is less than for conventional calls.

The time it takes to train local farmers, who may have limited educations, is the major challenge faced by the project. Lack of electricity in the remote areas also means that most farmers will have to travel long distances to shopping centers to charge the gadgets.

But, it is a good and cheap communication tool that allows the local community to communicate on movement of elephants, says Anthony King of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum.

Fifty people were trained in how to use the handsets during the PoC pilot project at three sites in Laikipia in November and December of last year. Community-elected scouts, government rangers and private landowners were among those trained.

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Rebecca Wanjiku

IDG News Service

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